Sport has been infected by an attention-seeking culture

Tipping Point: Johnny Sexton’s ‘Off The Ball’ deal shows the growing role of self-promotion

Johnny Sexton during the Leinster captain’s run, at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, on Friday. Photograph: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

Johnny Sexton during the Leinster captain’s run, at the Aviva Stadium, Dublin, on Friday. Photograph: ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

 

Call it an information era, a media generation, the time of technology, or whatever you like, but much of our current period can still be boiled down to it being the age of attention.

That once unattractive trait of attention-seeking has become the culture, usually in terms of flogging something, often yourself, in an effort to develop that most ubiquitous of digital buzzwords – profile.   

Sports of all kinds are no different in the hunt for that elusive commodity, and exploiting the image of its leading stars is a key weapon in their armoury.

It’s not hard to see why. Youthful enthusiasm isn’t fired by any coach on the sideline. No one buys a subscription or a ticket to look at a suit sitting in the chief executive’s box. Ultimately, if it isn’t about the athlete it’s about nothing. 

And don’t a lot of them know it. A generation of young sports figures have grown up in an all-consuming media environment where attention isn’t just normal, it’s currency.

Numbers of followers on Twitter and Instagram don’t just translate into an ego boost but extra noughts in contract negotiations, presenting a consumer market ready-made to be tapped into by association.

The everyday digital demand to “LOOK AT ME” has been moulded into a sophisticated, calculating and hugely profitable product placement industry.  

It’s an industry that sees stars, and the sports they are stars in, engaged in a perpetual and mutually beneficial hunt for brand awareness.

Cristiano Ronaldo has almost 20 million more Twitter followers than Donald Trump. No one has mastered “LOOK AT ME” more effectively, or profitably, than the preening Portuguese footballer. And of course soccer’s profile benefits in his slipstream.

He’s not alone. That apparently spontaneous post by Serena or LeBron, promising a glimpse of supposed behind-the-scenes authenticity, often has more choreography than Dancing With The Stars.

Reflects the hustle

It reflects how savvy the hustle has become, complete with the inevitable business jargon about demographic engagement, brand relevance and so on.

Which is fine if you’re fine with it. Whether through social or mainstream media, it can be a win-win if athletes want to put themselves out there. It has been British racing’s good fortune, for instance, to have had the exuberant Frankie Dettori as its public face for more than two decades.

But this is fast becoming the game no one’s allowed not play, which is bad news for anyone hanging on to quaint ideas about relentless attention-seeking being an unlovely inclination.   

Stephen Cluxton, for instance, might be one of these people. But he ain’t telling. That’s because he doesn’t do interviews, or “chat”, or “share”. He steers clear of the media game generally in order to get on with doing what he wants to do, which is keep goal for Dublin.

And the outcome of this perfectly reasonable exercise in deciding for himself who he speaks to, and when, is a popular image of him as some reclusive obsessive emerging from seclusion only to lift Sam Maguire or give Jason McAteer a dig.

That Cluxton is apparently a perfectly pleasant but private guy probably helps him in not giving a flyer about this popular portrayal. And it’s certainly a sad day when an amateur sportsperson can’t choose not to trade cliches with Marty Morrissey.

Any pullback can be a refreshingly authentic swerve from the incessant hard-sell

Except there remains a widespread feeling within Gaelic games that leading players have some obligation to put themselves out there to promote the GAA brand.

The pundit Pat Spillane is partial to a bit of attention himself and recently complained that Gaelic games lag behind rugby in not properly promoting their leading stars. He bemoaned how many players were rarely seen or heard off the field, and how this compares with how rugby portrays Conor Murray & Co.

So Spillane’s ears probably picked up last week when it was announced Johnny Sexton is going to “partner” with the Off The Ball radio show.

Off The Ball is owned by Communicorp Media, whose owner, Denis O’Brien, as the press release states, “renewed his commitment to Leinster and the IRFU by facilitating Sexton’s partnership with Off The Ball”. It sounds like a mutually beneficial exercise in profile promotion all-round.

Duty of athletes

It’s the sort of arrangement the new 20x20 campaign, which seeks to increase participation, attendances and, crucially, media coverage for women’s sport in Ireland, would love. There too, there’s an implicit expectation that athletes have a duty to promote the profile of women’s sports.

It’s something the pioneering jockey Rachael Blackmore addressed recently. She said she feels bad sometimes for not doing more to raise her own profile, and thus help to raise the profile of both women in sport and maybe even racing itself.

Blackmore is a talented, bright and articulate individual. What she is doing in the professional ranks of the toughest sport of all is historic and a story well worth highlighting. But Blackmore also cuts a modest figure, uncomfortable with attention and eager to just get on with her job with the minimum of fuss.  

And that’s her call to make. It’s any athlete’s call. If profile is what individuals want, and they see an angle both for themselves and their sport, then good luck to them. But no matter how helpful it might be in overall terms, there can be no obligation on any individual to play the bullshit game.

Now it might sound counterintuitive for a sports hack to not want sportspeople to “reach out”. But when so much of what is put out simply contributes more to a vast ocean of glossy, anodyne, self-puffing, brand ambassador, attention-seeking  claptrap, then any pullback from all that can be a refreshingly authentic swerve from the incessant hard-sell.  

After all, pursuing the authentic is supposed to be the deal. Dettori is beloved by the public because he means it. But so was Lester Piggott, who never employed one word when none would do. Exploiting the bells and whistles “LOOK AT ME” culture is fine. But it isn’t compulsory – yet.   

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